It would take a very good writer, in the opening pages of her first published novel, to distill the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a symbol of two children fighting over a toy dinosaur at a preschool in Jerusalem. Imagine it: the moms – one Jewish, the other Arab – chatting amiably with one another and trying to become fast friends while their young sons give in to a mindless, primordial possessiveness over a plastic tyrannosaurus, and then having those moms try to broker a shaky peace. It would indeed be a mightily impressive metaphor, if a courageous author were able to pull it off.
Ariela Freedman is an exceptionally good writer. In Arabic for Beginners, her affecting, polished, and deeply confident debut, she executes this and other lively feats. Freedman presents the Middle East conflict as we’ve rarely seen it, through the eyes of an ambivalent wife and mother brought back to Israel (she had spent time there when she was younger) by her husband’s academic posting. She now has the time and inclination to see the country’s strife through fresh eyes.
Freedman’s protagonist, a struggling Jewish grad student named Hannah, makes friends with fellow mom Jenna (who sometimes goes by her more Arabic name, Jannah, or even Yanna), and begins studying her language as an act of cultural transference. Along the way, Hannah meets an entertaining assortment of bored housewives – mostly spouses of career diplomats – who invariably grumble about, resent, and cheat on their working husbands, all while trying to navigate the tightrope of heightened socio-political tension that permeates so many of Jerusalem’s streets.
This novel engages with multiple aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and through her friendship with Jenna, Hannah learns a thing or two about the privilege she enjoys as a Jew in this land. The novel also deals with Hannah’s devolving relationship with her husband, Simon, and her struggles with the drudgery of parenting two small children.
The ending is unexpected and pleasurable, as Hannah and Simon decide to press on despite their uncertainty toward each other. They return to Canada feeling as if Jerusalem and all its complexity had visited them in a dream.